A year ago, the Gophers had Jordan Murphy on the watch list for the Karl Malone Award that goes to the top power forward in college basketball.
Now with Murphy’s graduation, the Gophers will be trying to compete without him in a league loaded with quality players at his position.
The Big Ten had six names on the Karl Malone Award’s preseason watch list released Thursday. Maryland’s Jalen Smith, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, Penn State’s Lamar Stevens and Purdue’s Trevion Williams are among 20 players mentioned.
Replacing Minnesota's all-time rebounding leader just got tougher with the season-ending knee injury last week to junior Eric Curry. Another unfortunate setback for Curry means Richard Pitino is without his most experienced returning post player, putting more pressure on Drexel graduate transfer Alihan Demir (pictured) and others.
There won’t be any Karl Malone Award candidates walking through the Barn doors this season, but all isn’t lost for Pitino to fill the power forward spot without Murphy and now Curry, too.
Below are the players the Gophers will turn to at the spot Murphy held down strong for four record-breaking rebounding seasons at the U.
Alihan Demir 6-9 235 senior – The Gophers won’t be as physical and dominant on the boards with Demir in Murphy’s place. But there are strengths adding a different element to the power forward spot than in years past. Demir made 43 three-pointers and had 145 assists in two seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association. The Turkey native’s outside shooting (36.5 percent as a sophomore), passing and ball-handling skills for his size could make the Gophers tougher to defend. Demir also isn’t a poor rebounder having averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per 40 minutes in 2018-19. The high-low offense that helped Murphy and starting center Daniel Oturu excel in games together last season won’t work without Demir being a legitimate post-up threat. But Pitino and his coaching staff are studying new offensive styles to help their big men thrive away from the basket as well.
Pitino at Big Ten Media Day on Demir: "Alihan was good at Drexel. He’s taking the step up. He’s got to be ready to go. He’s had a really, really productive summer and fall."
Jarvis Omersa 6-7 235 sophomore – Omersa is the player who most resembles Murphy in height, athletic ability and length on Minnesota’s roster. Both are undersized for the position, but Omersa’s 40-inch vertical and 7-foot wingspan allow him to play taller. Murphy often overpowered defenders for dunks and boards with athleticism and length, but it was mostly his determination. Omersa has the physical gifts and plays with effort. The next step for the former Orono standout is production consistently from the bench, with not only his energy but his dunks, defense and rebounding. In the U’s NCAA tournament second-round loss to Michigan State with Murphy sidelined with a back injury last season, Omersa showed progress with seven rebounds and three steals in 26 minutes.
Pitino on Omersa: "He’s [had] a huge offseason from a skill standpoint. Obviously, he has a great attitude and he’s infectious. Now it comes down to we’re going to thrust him into a bigger role, so is he going to be able to handle it."
Michael Hurt 6-7 220 senior – Hurt’s the only player left for the Gophers who played in Pitino’s first NCAA tournament with the program in 2017. That’s where his leadership for a young and inexperienced team will be valuable. Hurt’s playing time has been sporadic during the last three seasons, but he proved to be reliable at knowing what to do offensively and defensively at any position. The Rochester native averaged 8.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per 40 minutes last season, which was nearly identical to Curry (in his 15 games healthy). He’ll be asked to do the same with that efficiency this year when called upon.
Hurt at Big Ten Media Day: "I was guarding Muph in practice all of last year. So, to go up against one of the best power forwards to do it definitely helped with that opportunity. I’m excited to help anyway I can."
Isaiah Ihnen 6-9 210 freshman – Ihnen was listed as a four-star power forward by recruiting sites in the Gophers’ 2019 class, but he admits to shying away from action in the paint. His true position is on the wing. He loves shooting three-pointers and getting out to finish in transition. Pitino likely won’t ask the German native to play much out of his comfort zone yet. But Ihnen’s length (7-4 wingspan) might come in handy defensively against long and athletic opposing frontcourts. Not too much should be judged off Minnesota’s foreign tour to Italy, but Ihnen did have 19 points, four rebounds, three steals and a block in 23 minutes as a starting forward vs. Tuscan Select.
Marcus Carr on Ihnen: "Isaiah is really a talented player. He can do a lot of things on the floor. He’s very long and has a lot of potential."